There is a first time for everything and where better to start than the Vuelta a España?
More than a quarter of the field – 58 of the 192-rider peloton – will be making their debut at the Spanish grand tour, including some big names like Egan Bernal and Arnaud Démare.
However, of the 58 riding the Vuelta for the first time, a massive 35 of them are contesting their first-ever grand tour. Among them are U.S. rider Quinn Simmons and Olympic mountain bike gold medalist Tom Pidcock.
“I’m not going to go in as a leader, but I can go in and help the team. I’m happy to do that. There’s no pressure and it’s almost easier to perform when you’re not under pressure. I quite like working for others sometimes,” Pidcock told the Lanterne Rouge podcast of his Vuelta debut earlier this year.
It is the reduced pressure that makes the Vuelta an ideal starting point for young riders keen to get their first taste of grand tour action. As with the Giro d’Italia earlier in the year, the Vuelta gives riders the freedom to figure out their limits in a less intense environment.
With more riders stepping straight from the under 23 and junior ranks to WorldTour level, a growing number are being chucked into their debut grand tour at a relatively young age.
Sending neo-pros to the Vuelta can give them a chance to get in several months of top-level racing before having a go at one of the three hardest races on the calendar.
Over the years, the Vuelta has proved a good training ground for budding talent. In the last five seasons, five of the 11 grand tour winners have ridden their first grand tour in Spain, compared to four at the Tour de France and just two at the Giro d’Italia.
Tadej Pogačar made his in emphatic style at the 2019 Vuelta, charging to three stage victories and a third-place overall. Many will remember Tom Dumoulin also breaking through as a GC rider at the 2015 Vuelta, while he also made his grand tour debut at the race three years earlier.
Of course, it’s not just about GC talent, and classics star Tom Boonen made his grand tour debut at the Spanish race in 2003. He went on to win two stages of the Tour de France the following year, including the prestigious Paris sprint, but it was the Vuelta that he had earned his experience.
Greg Van Avermaet also made his first foray into three-week racing in Spain in 2008, winning a stage and the points classification ahead of Alberto Contador.
The class of 2021
The Vuelta a España’s grand tour debutant class of 2021 is a big one and features riders across the full spectrum of their careers.
This year’s youngest first-timer is Carlos Canal of Burgos-BH at 20 years and 47 days. He stepped up to ProTeam level last year and has put in some solid results, including a top-10 at the Vuelta Ciclista a la Región de Murcia, and he’s likely to be in a few breakaways over the next three weeks.
At the other end of the scale, Bert Van Lerberghe is a grand tour rookie at the more experienced age of 28 years and 319 days. Lerberghe’s progression up the cycling ranks has been gradual but steady, and though he is a three-week newbie, there will be bigger expectations on him to deliver compared to Canal.
Between Canal and Lerberghe, there are a whole host of other riders looking to see how they do over three weeks of racing. Among them are some budding young riders who will be looking to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Boonen, Pogačar, and Dumoulin in making the Vuelta the first step towards grand tour success, whether that be GC wins or stage victories.
Standing out among their peers in this class are Pidcock, Simmons, Mauri Vansevenant, and Andreas Kron. Jordi Meeus, Diego Andrés Camargo, and Jay Vine will three others to keep a keen eye on over the coming weeks.
Pidcock’s grand tour debut has been one of the most hotly anticipated of the year after he turned professional on the road back in February. Since then, he’s notched up his first pro road win at the Brabantse Pijl and nearly claimed his first WorldTour victory only to be edged out by Wout van Aert at the Amstel Gold Race.
His summer took a step back after he was hit by a car driver during training, but he made up for lost time by stomping to gold in the mountain bike event at the Olympic Games. Pidcock doesn’t know where his talents will take him at the Vuelta, but he has a world of possibilities.
For U.S. fans, the debut of Simmons will be a major point of interest. He is just a few days older than Canal and will be the second-youngest member of the peloton in Spain.
Though the team will be geared around Giulio Ciccone and his GC ambitions, there will be opportunities for Simmons to have his own chances. He comes into the race with confidence after winning a stage and the overall at the Tour de Wallonie, but the Vuelta will be a major step up from anything he’s done before.
After the Tour de France success of Jonas Vingegaard, Kron’s grand tour debut is likely to earn plenty of attention at home in Denmark. While it would be too much to expect Kron to do anything remotely similar to his compatriot, the 23-year-old could shine in the Spanish sun.
He’s already taken WorldTour wins at the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Suisse and he stands a good chance at coming home with a grand tour stage win to add to his collection as part of a Lotto Soudal team primed for stage hunting.
Vansevenant notched up his first individual pro win GP Industria & Artigianato in March and he has been one of the most aggressive riders throughout this season. His 11th place overall at the Iztulia Basque Country shows he has plenty of GC promise and the Vuelta will be an opportunity to see how he holds up over three weeks.
While he hasn’t had the same hype as his teammate Remco Evenepoel did ahead of the Giro d’Italia, Vansevenant will be one to watch in Spain.